- Associated Press - Saturday, June 18, 2016

FREMONT, Minn. (AP) - At 100 years old, Martha Johnson, the owner of the Fremont Store in rural Winona County that predates her by 60 years, is still sharp as a tack.

Martha has owned and run the store with family and community assistance since 2004 after her son Donnie died. She’ll celebrate the store’s 160th anniversary Saturday with a party that’s expected to draw neighbors, long-time regulars, and those simply curious to meet the character responsible for keeping up what is likely Minnesota’s oldest continuously run grocery store.

The Winona Daily News (https://bit.ly/1YlwTGi ) reports that the store is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every week, with Martha behind the counter, stocking the shelves, or handling other duties. Her commute isn’t long: She wakes up and gets ready in an addition built into the rear in the 1980s, then walks down a hallway that leads straight into the store.

She said she only closes the store if there is a pressing family or personal issue, though even those brief closures can cause a bit of anxiety among the regulars, she said, who wonder where she is.

“If the store isn’t open it’s a shock,” said Martha’s daughter, Mary Nahrgang. “People will walk around to find her and make phone calls.”

Martha gets by just fine without much by the way of modern technology. The store has a television, which she never uses. She doesn’t have a cellphone or use computers. When it comes to running the cash register, she utilizes the honor system - customers come in, place their money next to the register, gather what they need and take their change from the till.

The system wasn’t hers initially. Donnie started it during his tenure as owner; because of his muscular dystrophy, it was the easiest way for him to let customers make transactions. Martha kept the system because it’s not only convenient for her, but a reminder of her son.

The only technology Martha needs is what’s inside her brain, she said. When she tried to recall a memory during a recent interview, a look of deep thought crossed her face, then vanished.

She pointed to her temple. “That’s my computer; it has a virus.”

She chuckled.

“It’ll come to me later.”

It always does. That’s because running the Fremont Store, Martha said, is her alternative to assisted living, the activity that keeps her young. She may be 100 in calendar years, but she looks like she could be years or decades younger.

“It’s my therapy,” she said. “I’m not in a nursing home, not in a hospital. I just run the store.”

Martha loves all her customers, whether they’re regulars, one-stop shoppers or tourists. Her daughter, Mary, said Martha will sit down and talk with anyone willing to have a conversation - especially children.

She usually starts by asking kids to show how old they are with their fingers. Most hold up fewer fingers than the total on their two hands. Martha responds by counting by ten with her fingers, one at a time, telling them to stop her when they think she’s arrived at her age.

She usually ends up having to tell them the number before counting that high.

“They’re always shocked,” she said. “I love their reactions.”

If a customer comes in near closing time and makes their purchase but wants to sit and chat, that just means the store keeps longer hours. The lights always stay on for a visitor, Martha said.

“Bless the customers,” she said with a smile.

At the front of the store, next to the frog that croaks to alert Martha when a customer enters, is a notepad for customers to sign in and list where they’re from.

During the recent visit, Mary picked up the notepad and began flipping through the pages. She read off locations customers hail from: “Texas, Indiana, Mississippi, Norway, California, France, China …”

A lot has changed since the store was built in 1856, years before the Civil War started. L.C. Rice built the store and two-room hotel the same year the maverick surveyor and explorer John C. Fremont announced his candidacy for the fledgling Republican Party. As the story goes, Fremont spent a night in the hotel while on the campaign trail, and Rice and others were so taken with the man that they named the store after him.

Today, there’s a blend of antiquity and modernity in the store - aging signs, cans, pictures and memorabilia, mixed with a television, an electronic picture frame that displays a slideshow of photos taken over the years. There’s a rusted Coca-Cola sign on the front of the store, modern plastic bottles of Coca-Cola in an old-fashioned cooler inside.

Martha said she plans to continue running the store as long as she can, despite her daughter regularly offering the idea of moving down to Arizona to live with her.

“At least for the winter,” Nahrgang told her.

“I’m not ready to retire,” Johnson responded. “If I left, I’d lose the customers.”

At her chair near the cash register are two signs that speak volumes to both the longevity and enduring vitality of the store, as well as its centenarian owner.

The first reads: “Sit long talk much.”

The second: “This is my happy place.”


Information from: Winona Daily News, https://www.winonadailynews.com

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